5 lessons the building industry can learn from a Fitbit

Rocky Mountain Institute

5 lessons the building industry can learn from a Fitbit

Fitbit wearable tech building big data lessons
Fitbit
The wearable tech craze has uncovered unanticipated lessons for builders.

Personal fitness tracking has taken hold of people in a big way. Wearable tracking devices such as Fitbit, Jawbone and FuelBand allow consumers to track their physical activity, heart rate, calories burned and more.

Demand for these devices has grown incredibly over the last few years, with one in 10 U.S. adults owning one. Fitbit has sold more than 20 million devices since 2007 and has just gone public.

This growing trend of gathering more data and performing more data analysis can be applied to buildings as well. Just as tracking your physical activity can improve your fitness, tracking a building’s energy use has the potential to reduce a building’s energy use.

Smart buildings minimize energy cost, support a robust electric grid and mitigate environmental impact. As the number of smart buildings grows and the technology matures, we can learn some lessons from wearable fitness trackers.

1. Personalize it

Most wearable fitness trackers count steps and give the user a general idea of his or her level of activity.

But newer trackers are going even further and collecting more specific data depending on the user’s specific activity and areas of the body being used. Wearables can track the user’s exact movements, helping improve running stride, golf swing and even posture.

Buildings need to collect more personal data as well. While providing energy data on a building is important, to really drive efficiency the data needs to be specific for the spaces and uses in the building.

“For buildings without modern automation systems, it’s exceedingly rare to get to floor or room level energy measurement,” said RMI Manager Roy Torbert, a Fitbit user for the past six months.

A Johnson Controls study (PDF) showed the importance of user-specific data to engage more people in energy management.

“This could mean disaggregating building data down to the personal level, where individual occupants could see the impact their decisions have on the building’s performance,” according to the report.

2. Use comparisons

Many wearable tracking devices allow the user to log in to a social network and get updates on what friends are doing and compare activities. The assumption is that people will be more motivated to change their behavior by showing them what others are doing.

Studies have shown this to be true in building energy use as well — when customers are told they are using more energy than their neighbors, they cut their consumption. Many utilities already include an anonymous comparison of a customer’s monthly energy use and bill to their neighbors.

But Opower takes it a step further by not only helping residential energy users compare their energy use against their neighbors, but also by allowing them to set a goal and track their progress. Opower has seen up to 3.5 percent savings across the over 90 utilities which use its platform.

3. Provide positive targets

One reason wearable trackers are successful in getting people to exercise is the desire to accomplish a positive target. For example, the Fitbit’s default is to vibrate when the wearer reaches 10,000 steps in one day.

“If I look at the end of the day and I’m at 9,900, I will walk around the apartment, going out of my way to hit the target,” said Torbert.

Most people feel a sense of satisfaction when they reach a positive goal and will strive towards it. It’s just as important to have an energy efficiency goal in a building.

Studies conducted at the Eindhoven University of Technology show that people with energy feedback along with energy saving goals saved 20 percent of energy used, while those with only energy feedback did not save nearly as much energy.

With buildings, however, an energy goal is typically a negative target, such as telling people they have to reduce their energy use.

“We have seen in studies and in practice that if we want good results with energy efficiency, we need to reframe a negative goal into one where it can feel positive,” said Torbert.

For example, instead of reducing an energy bill, participants can work towards a target of how frequently a building can be fully daylit or naturally ventilated, with feedback and encouragement provided to the entire organization.

Lucid Design Group has a building dashboard for commercial buildings that was used by a multinational media company to have departments compete to see who could reduce the most energy and win an ice cream social for their team. The competition saved 47,000 kWh over a two-week period, which amounted to $5,000 in savings.

4. Use multiple data points

Wearable trackers have certain data points and infer other data from there. For example, Fitbit’s data point is steps taken.

With that measure the device will tell the user how much he or she has been exercising and how many calories were burned, although it’s not measuring those specific things. And with only one data point, it’s not completely accurate — wearables are anywhere from 15 to 40 percent off in measuring calories burned.

Many smaller commercial buildings often only have one data point as well. A building may have a meter that records energy use for a short interval of time. From that data point people may try to infer all sorts of things, said Torbert: “Are we operating systems at times we shouldn’t? Are any systems operating out of order? Are my dampers open when they should be closed?”

These are things that are hard to infer from one central data point. Yet many buildings stop at one data point.

“If I had to make investment decisions based on Fitbit data, I’d be in trouble,” said Torbert. “And it’s the same if people make operational and investment decisions for buildings based on data they get from whole-building electricity meters. If the inferences from that data are incorrect, that’s a huge problem. When you have multiple direct data sources, your inferences get more accurate.”

The good news is that with the cost of data collection going down, we are getting far more data about buildings. 

“Even with buildings that do collect a lot of data, which is happening more and more, the problem is that it is not easy to interpret the data and the potential insights within the data are lost,” RMI Manager Phil Keuhn added, which leads to the critical issue of putting the data to use.

5. Use the data

Perhaps the most important aspect of gathering this data, whether for wearable fitness trackers or building energy use, is getting people to use the data in a constructive way.

There’s not much use in knowing how many steps you have taken if you are not going to use that data to improve your fitness level.

Likewise, building energy data is not much help to us if it’s not helping reduce energy use or improve operational efficiency. The data needs to be used to improve operationally, to retrocommission existing systems, or even to help know when to initiate an energy retrofit project.

So while collecting data is important, “the real game-changer is implementing deep data analysis that takes those massive amounts of data and uses it as the basis for actionable, customized insights," Swapnil Shah, CEO of FirstFuel, wrote recently in GreenTech Media.

Just as the wearable tracker craze grows, so does the development of smart buildings. The next time you strap on your Fitbit, make sure you truly improve your fitness by getting the most out of the data it provides you.

Similarly with smart buildings, if we collect the right data, use it the right way and set goals, we can have buildings that cut energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint.

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